Registrars, Town Clerk Concerned About Electronic Voting Costs


By John Voket



This touch screen voting terminal is among the half-dozen systems being considered for Connecticut municipalities by the Secretary of State's office. This particular system, manufactured by Connecticut-based Adkins Printing Company, Inc of New Britain, has a full ballot screen, which is mandated by current state law. It also has many features preferred by Newtown Registrars of Voters.


(This is the second part of a series on options for Newtown and the rest of Connecticut as officials consider the requirements of the federal Help America Vote Act.)


"If it ain't broke, don't fix it," seems to be the mantra coming from Newtown officials who are waiting patiently as the state decides what to do about the apparent impending implementation of new electronic voting terminals. While both the Republican and Democrat registrars of voters and the town clerk understand the need to bring greater accountability to the voting process, all have stated they will hate to see the day existing decades-old mechanical voting machines are retired.


"Maybe it's obsolete technology, but it works," said Registrar Karin Aurelia.


"We understand that this is a federal law that was passed to reform a system that allowed the fiasco in Florida [during the 2000 Presidential election], but I understand that Florida has already decided to replace the electronic voting system they've only had in place for a couple of years," said Registrar LeReine Frampton.


According to a report in the April 12 edition of the Miami Herald, Miami-Dade officials are considering a request from a county manager to scrap $24.5 million in electronic voting equipment after it was discovered that hundreds of votes cast in a recent election were never counted.


Representatives of True VoteCT and the state's League of Women Voters came to Newtown recently to continue a process of educating state voters about a situation they say could very well set Connecticut up to be the next Florida or Ohio when it comes to Election Day disasters. The True VoteCT volunteers circulated volumes of paperwork, much of it drawing attention to electronic system shortcomings that have plagued other states.


True VoteCT's co-founder also used the meeting as an opportunity to call for Secretary of the State Susan Bysiewicz to rescind a request for proposal (RFP) to six companies vying to supply millions of dollars worth of electronic voting stations to Connecticut cities and towns.


Michael J. Fischer, a Yale computer science professor and co-founder of True VoteCT, contends that if Connecticut and Ms Bysiewicz continue with a plan to install one direct recording electronic machine in each polling place by the 2006 general elections, the state could fall victim to the same fate that has been eroding voter confidence since the 2000 Presidential election debacle in Florida.


The incidents of possible miscounted votes in that election led to the eventual passage of the 2002 Help America Vote Act (HAVA), which places various requirements on states for the conduct of federal elections, Mr Fischer explained. He referenced a handout that spelled out two requirements of the federal mandate:


1. At least one voting machine in each precinct must be accessible to individuals with disabilities and allow them to vote privately and independently.


2. Each voting system used in federal elections must produce a permanent paper record with a manual audit capacity for such systems.


The Herald article points out that Miami-Dade elections officials are leaning toward acquiring new equipment that would provide optical scanning technology, one of the options that has been discussed for possible implementation in Connecticut. A recent New York Times editorial supported the adoption of optical scanning technology, which is being considered by election officials in the Empire State.


According to information supplied by True VoteCT, voters using optical scanning technology would complete a ballot similar to the bar-coded bubble sheets used for standardized tests like the SAT. The voter would insert the ballot into a paper scanner device that registers the information electronically, but would also retain the paper ballot for audit purposes.


The system provides for voter verification, and an option for the voter to reject the ballot and start again if information is recorded incorrectly, or if they made a mistake on the ballot. The system can also be modified with a ballot marking device that would provide full access for handicapped voters


League of Women Voters representative Christine Horrigan told attendees at the recent Newtown gathering that her organization supports the spirit of the HAVA mandate, and that her organization is committed to endorsing an electronic system that provides for secure, accurate, recountable, and accessible voting.


She briefly discussed a current legislative proposal, Senate Bill 55, that was introduced in January by Senator Donald DeFronzo. If approved and passed into law as written, the bill would require any voting machine approved for use after January 1, 2006, to be constructed as to produce an individual, permanent, voter-verified paper record for each elector.


But according to Mr Fischer, this is where potential problems, and costs, begin to crop up.


Because of the cost of voter-verified paper audit trail (VVPAT) machines, and the fact that HAVA grant funds will only be provided for those machines, the state and its municipalities may be forced to outfit their polls with more economical optical scanning stations, he said.


The Herald story noted that electronic machines have tripled Election Day costs in Dade County - a point that is not lost on local officials, even if state and federal grants underwrite the initial conversion of equipment in Connecticut.


"Some of these touch screen machines only accommodate about 300 voters during the course of an election day, as opposed to the old mechanical machines that can do about 900. So this means we may be looking at equipping three terminals for every mechanical station," Ms Frampton said.


And Ms Aurelia said, since Newtown has four different voting districts, she would expect to incur significant additional costs to program machines for the different candidates running in each precinct.


"This could create a huge budget concern," she said.


Ms Frampton said she does not believe that electronic terminals have much more than a five-year shelf life before the entire machine has to be replaced or significantly upgraded, a drastic difference from the current mechanical machines that cost comparatively little to maintain and have served local voters for decades.


Then there is the concern about storage and handling. Ms Aurelia said that storage, handling, and the potential to have to retrain election workers and volunteers added to the likelihood of frequent upgrades or machine replacement could mean astronomical expenses that she expects will eventually fall on local taxpayers.


"State officials need to consider the big picture," Ms Aurelia said. "It's not the startup that concerns me as much as the long-term financial consequences of going fully electronic."


Town Clerk Cynthia Simon said she is as concerned about the viability of electronic polling as she is about the long-term costs.


"The state has to come through with a lot of information pretty quickly," Ms Simon said. "But we can't afford to have them rushing to make a decision either."


Ms Simon said although the switch to electronic voting terminals is mandated through federal legislation, she also believes the major bulk of the long-term costs for the new system will fall on local taxpayers. But she is confident that any new voting system will eventually be accepted by Newtown residents who value their voting privileges over any temporary inconveniences a changeover may cause.


"This is the wave of the future," Ms Simon said. "But it shouldn't deter people who regularly exercise their right. I just hope the state makes it a priority to create an easy transition."


The next part of the series will look at the progress of related state legislation, and the status of Connecticut's Secretary of the State's office on the electronic voting transition process.


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